Down the toilet…

Still mired as I am in book editing, I’m not finding the time to engage with this blog as I wish. Hopefully, that’ll change soon. But I feel the need to make a brief appearance here today to mark Britain’s exit from the European Union – and, not unconnectedly, to talk about toilets.

Moves have been afoot for a ‘Big Ben bong’ at midnight tonight to celebrate our ‘independence’ from the EU, with a crowdfunder to expedite the repair and refurbishment of the clock in time for the big moment. I always thought a bong was something for smoking intoxicating substances in cafés – which is kind of appropriate, because a lot of people probably won’t have much else to do but sit around and take their mind off things once Brexonomics bites. But the appeal didn’t raise enough money, and permission to ring the bell was refused by the Houses of Parliament anyway. Somehow I can’t help seeing this as an omen for Brexit: the icon of British sovereignty is broken and in need of repairs, not enough people care enough to pay for them, and in any case the repairs are stymied by bureaucratic nay-saying of the kind we were supposed to have overcome by leaving the EU.

This is always the way with nationalism. The unities and resolutions it asserts never quite work, because the underlying story is always more complicated. Fintan O’Toole – whose acerbic Brexit commentaries have consistently hit the nail on the head for me – puts it like this:

“There is no doubt that Brexit has worked in the way that nationalist movements try to – it has united people across great divides of social class and geography in the name of a transcendent identity …. But the problem is that this unity of national purpose functions within a nation that does not actually exist: non-metropolitan England and parts of English-speaking Wales. And it is purchased at the very high price of creating much deeper divisions between England-without-London and the rest of the British-Irish archipelago.”

The opportunity in this is that it could ultimately weaken Westminster’s grip on the country – most strongly at first in Scotland and Ireland, but eventually in England and Wales too. Once the scent of secession is in the nostrils, there’s no telling where it might end – possibly in those parts of pro-Brexit, non-metropolitan England having to take full responsibility for their own wellbeing. I’m not sure that’s what they were voting for, but in the long run it may well be what people are going to have to do across the world in the face of our numerous economic and environmental problems. So … Brexit … hell yeah, why not? Let’s start practicing. The Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, here we come.

Actually, I don’t think Brexit is a secession so much as what I’ve called elsewhere a supersedure. Britain has left ‘Europe’ but is still part of it, just as the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex would still be part of a larger polity. So, much as I’d have preferred to avoid the numerous absurdities of Brexit, I think it’ll prove an interesting experiment in what’s to come. Not least because the EU has long been an exclusive club to which other countries have desperately sought entry. I think we’re about to find out why.

What’s to come agriculturally looks like the ending of per acre subsidies for landowners, with public money paid only for delivering ‘ecosystem services’. Which is great, except that since there’s no commitment to national food self-reliance, we’re also set for agricultural trade deals on probably disadvantageous terms – certainly for the average farmer. Expect more farm closures, lots of nature-friendly rewilding at home, and cheap, nature-unfriendly food from abroad … while we can still pay for it.

Still, who cares? We’re sitting pretty on our farm. The outlook for UK veg growers is good, we’re not reliant on subsidies, and we’ve already made considerable strides towards supersedure. For example, our compost toilets save us from wasting water or fertility that we can furnish ourselves, ultimately saving us money that we probably soon won’t have as the rest of the world carves up lonely and vulnerable little Britain. It started with voting for Brexit. It’ll end with townsfolk spreading over the countryside and carefully composting their shit. Welcome to my world. Well, there are worse ways to live. At least when I look down the toilet I know that, however feeble my other accomplishments, I’ve made some kind of solid contribution.

But never let it be said that here at Vallis Veg we hoard our riches at the expense of others. The wisdom of our accumulated compost toilet experience is now available to you in our online course, where you’ll be safe in the hands of our resident toilet expert, my dear wife Cordelia. It’s her show and not mine, but if you look very closely you may just catch a glimpse of some of my dodgy plumbing. The good news is, you get the first seven minutes – in which Cordelia explains how to supersede yourself just a little bit from the capitalist system – absolutely free. And the rest for a mere £45 …which I guarantee we won’t spend on bongs, of any description.

19 thoughts on “Down the toilet…

  1. Your feelings about Brexit are similar to mine about Trump. I don’t like him or want him as President, but can’t help but see the silver lining in his ability to muck up our global industrial civilization and promote rapid localization. If only this ability were intentional and came with a well thought out plan to mitigate the consequences. Of course, we can always look to SFF for the plan.

    I am not making the solid contribution to farm fertility that you are. We do separate our urine by peeing in a bucket with a snap-on toilet seat, but do not yet compost our poo. I make the excuse that we have loads of carbon on site in the form of chipped wood, but additional nitrogen is always needed, even with clover cover crops. The real reason is deference to my wife’s reluctance.

    I had always thought that we would eventually use the methods pioneered by Joe Jenkins and described in his Humanure Handbook, which also uses a bucket method similar to our pee buckets, but with carbonaceous cover over the deposits. Jenkins does not favor compost toilets, but I will check out at least the free parts of Cordelia’s presentation. A compost toilet would certainly have the advantage of not requiring regular transport of buckets to a separate compost bin, plus no need to clean a bucket after using them for transport.

  2. At least when I look down the toilet I know that, however feeble my other accomplishments, I’ve made some kind of solid contribution.

    Excellent – the solid part I mean – for if anything else then some question of individual heath might be open. And now with fears of invasive flu viruses flitting around the planet one can not be left inattentive to such matters. Perhaps another silver lining.

    As for refurbishing Big Ben… my only advice would be to have some quite wealthy individual put up most of the scratch required (Richard Branson perhaps??) – The Washington monument here on our side of the pond was refurbished in such a manner.

    While the $7.785 million security facility was funded through the Park Service’s annual budget, the $3 million for the new elevator came from billionaire financier and philanthropist David Rubenstein of Bethesda, Md., just outside Washington, D.C.

  3. That looks like a great course. Compost toilets as one antidote to all kinds of madness! Well done Cordelia, Vallis Veg and Low Impact org. It looks like you delve in to the connected worlds of vermicomposting and maybe even solar heating of this most valuable resource. I wonder how black soldier fly larvae might fare with breaking down fecal matter – has anyone tried this?

    • I’m sure it would work. From
      Abattoir waste, food waste, human faeces and a mixture of abattoir waste – fruits & vegetables are waste streams that are highly suitable for fly larvae treatment.

      BSF larvae love chicken manure, but it does have a much higher nitrogen content than human faeces. I don’t have a link, but I remember reading some years ago about a German process for using BSF larvae to consume sewage sludge.

      I make compost from layers of chicken manure, food waste and wood chips in a plastic compost bin and get plenty of BSF larvae during the warmer months (nine months of the year here in Hawaii). BSF prefer temps above 65 F, but there can be big differences between air temps and compost bin temps. The big issue is the collecting process and integrating that with larvae culture, something I have not yet managed well.

      You may be interested in this how-to article:

      • Nine months of bliss, I hope:)
        Thanks, Joe. I was reading about composting with red wiggler worms (Eisinia fetida) in which the author (Rhonda Sherman – it’s a good book) mentions that BSF larvae put worms to shame when it comes to speedily decomposing food scraps (or even precomposted material I guess). I think I heard somewhere that a kilo of BSF larvae can get through a couple of kilos of food scraps in an evening. Certainly there must be some wrinkles to iron out in actually getting them to do that reliably. I’m also in the dark as to whether the resultant ‘frass’ I believe it’s called, is as good for soil as vermicast, though I doubt it … will look into the links you provide. Keiran Whitaker at Entocycle in London (via a youtube short) seems to have the breeding technique and technology sorted (the chief goal being to provide edible protein for chooks and other bipeds). There’s also BSF activity in Turkey – a company called Naturansa – working in a similar direction, as well as many other places no doubt.

      • Thanks for sciencedirect link Joe. The article is open access and though just a year old already has over 30 citations. BSF has really taken on quite a bit of interest.

        And from a small farm perspective they offer a small footprint opportunity. Much of the CAFO argument about concentrating livestock into too small a space is not an issue here. Indeed, even in a dairy CAFO the cows are (typically) raised on only one level. BSF can be raised in containers small enough to be handled by hand and stacked in a space easily managed by humans without access to mechanized assistance. For illustrative purposes you can imagine your BSF nursery having no larger a footprint than the outhouse.

  4. I was fascinated by this photo

    Its on the Somerset & Dorset line as it climbs out of Bath, date unknown but I suspect Early 1950’s.

    It gives an idea of the sort of solutions that had been adopted to deal with Rationing both during and after WW2 , and a pointer to how we may well have to do things in the future, using every scrap of land and resources

  5. I’m still torn on Brexit/Trump etc. as the unwitting means to localization, but perhaps we’ll come back to this debate in due course. This kind of thing isn’t a good start:

    Great suggestion from Clem regarding Big Ben. But I wonder if he’s put his finger on the British malaise – we’re a kind of halfway house between US and mainland European politics, where we get the worst of both worlds. Europe has strong traditions of high quality state welfare provision, whereas in the US state welfare is weak but there are strong traditions of community self-help and philanthropy. The British take on this is low quality state welfare, and weak community self-help and philanthropy. Which means that while the likes of Richard Branson are happy to take some coin from carving up erstwhile public services, it’s unlikely they’ll dig deep to fund Big Ben. Just a hypothesis…

    Indeed, a thought-provoking photo from John. Along similar lines, I always find this one of the Reichstag in 1947 arresting:

    After dreams of imperial dominion crumble to dust, what’s left is … gardening.

    And thanks for the informative debate on composting and BSF larva – a new one for me. Jenkins’ system is good – the first toilet we made followed his approach – though I agree there’s a lot to be said for separating the liquids from the solids. With his system I guess you get the finished product quicker, but with a lot more day-to-day work.

    I wrote a blog post a while back on our compost toilets, before we’d built our latest swanky designs. One of the comments that stuck in my mind from that post was a question about their generalizability in view of the need for carbon-rich substrate. My feeling is that in a low energy world, folks would generally put a high priority on substrate for humanure, because it’s the one surefire fertility source we have. But maybe to generalize it you’d need people to spread out across the landscape on smallholdings. Which, come to think of it, is an excellent idea…

  6. I love the idea of localism ,Britain has removed itself from the EU globalists with luck scotland will leave the UK too ( though why they would rather be ruled by a unelected council of ministers beats me ) wales could leave but i doubt it and ulster will degenerate into civil war if its tried there .
    Compost toilets are great unless you live in a block of flats , IMHO there is nothing stopping the water companies composting near everything going into their sewage works and selling organic manure and methaine from the digesters , greens should really get onto this , cutting gas imports and actualy replacing some of them .

      • So they should they actualy charge for their feed stock , they should be paying you for your sewage , farmers spend millions on fertiliser , Russia makes billions from gas exports , sewage is a valuable comodity able to be turned into usefull and expensive comodities .

  7. Compost toilet owners in the UK who use humanure on farms and gardens are pioneers, in a way, breaking new ground.

    In the mid-nineteenth century, The Rural Cyclopedia bemoaned the wasted potential of English “night soil”:
    “Our hordes of population, instead of being enrichers of the island, in an agricultural point of view, are absolute impoverishers. They draw off the corn, the roots, and the flesh from the land; and they send it away into the sea, by means of the Thames, the Severn, the Humber, the Tees, and Tyne, and scores of other great wasters of the elements of human food. The Medlock, into which not more than the drainage of 100,000 is imperfectly discharged, is said by Mr. Grey to contain sufficient phosphoric acid to supply 95,000 acres of wheat, 184,000 acres of potatoes, or 280,000 acres of oats, and to hold in solution a sufficient quantity of silica to supply 50,000 acres of wheat.”

    This article (linked below) explains that “night soil” wasn’t used much as fertilizer in England due to the cost of transport and lack of demand, especially after the introduction of guano in the 1840s.

    The non-use of night soil in England
    Alan Macfarlane, 2002

  8. Ah yes, poop. One topic I seem to get drawn into again and again. Just had a wide ranging discussion with a neighbor today, mulling over peak phosphorus, which agriculture scenario(s) will win out in our country as fossil fuels and other inputs slowly fade, how will localization and farm size reduction play out- just the sort of things I come here for.

    I am following Jenkins’ humanure handbook mostly, but have one throne set up with a separation seat so the urine, where most of the phosphorus and nitrogen is, is handled apart from the solids. Less potential for smell from the solids, more ability to divert and apply the urine where fertility is needed most. After the three year humanure compost cycle, the solids join the urine in the garden.

    I find the seat only kit above the cheapest, and easily adapts to a bucket system.

    One aspect I have not found good info on is how much of the nitrogen might be lost as ammonia when the urine is stored for a while before applying to soil.

    Glad to see the concept being promoted there, but how do zoning and other government entities view composting toilet setups there? It can be an issue here.

    • I came across a couple of bits of relevant information while reading the article at the link Simon H provided:

      Separate storage is a simple and cheap secondary treatment method for urine and the same processes occur in this storage tank as in the collection tank. As long as the tank is just pressure equalised, and not ventilated, neither losses of nutrients nor any changes in their availability can occur.

      If latrine urine and faeces are composted together instead of just faeces, then the N input to the compost is increased some 3-8 times and most of the N from the urine is lost, because it is mainly in the form of ammonia, which easily escapes from the highly aerobic compost.

      Also, when you compare the NPK contents of urine and faeces, the vast majority of these nutrients is in the urine. Thus, especially for the N, urine should be carefully separated and stored to avoid losses. And considering the amount of work involved in safely handling and processing faeces to avoid pathogens, urine should be top priority in any excreta nutrient cycling program.

      • Humanure … if anyone’s wondering whether the Jenkins’ bucket collection/composting system is feasible in uk suburbia… I was inspired by his book 15 years ago and have operated his method continuously ever since. It has supplied pretty much all the fertility in our veg garden.
        It’s beauty is in its simplicity and low cost. Done right, there are no lingering smells at the latrine stage or in the compost. You get a bonus of a hot heap all year round into which all other garden waste can go too. No doubt some nitrogen is lost as ammonia, but it doesn’t seem to matter that much in practice.
        As you can see I’m a devotee … somehow the minimal work involved in completing the nutrient cycle by recycling one’s own excrement to produce magnificent compost is immensely satisfying. Who would have thought it could be so simple?
        Andy (Scotland)

        • Thanks Andy. Glad you’re happily humanuring. Making it work in suburbia is plausible … not so sure about urbia, but in my book that’s another reason for us to spread out a bit.

      • Plenty of good information there.
        I couldn’t find anything on what effect chlorinated/flouridated mains water has on the nutrients and PH of urine if used as the dilutant (as opposed to rain or well water, say). Could it even be beneficial?

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